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Review: 2007 Microsoft Office Beta 2 Is Up And Running

Beta 2 of Microsoft's upcoming Office suite is out. It's bigger and better, but still a bit strange.

More Interface Fun
So where exactly in Office does the new interface appear? A document on the Microsoft Web site states: "The new Microsoft Office user interface is designed to make the full range of advanced features provided by the Microsoft Office authoring applications more accessible to more people. For this reason, the new UI will be used in the following 2007 Microsoft Office applications: Microsoft Office Word 2007, Microsoft Office Excel 2007, Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007, Microsoft Office Access 2007, Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 (not the shell, only the authoring portion: mail composition, calendar, tasks and contacts)."

Yes, that's right. Parts of Outlook use the old interface, while other parts use the new interface, which is odd.

Most of Outlook uses the old, familiar Office interface...
Click image to enlarge and launch image gallery.

...while the "authoring" portions, such as creating a new contact, use the new interface. Click image to enlarge and launch image gallery.

What Microsoft doesn't explain is why neither the Publisher desktop publishing program nor the OneNote note-taking application (both of which seem to fit the "authoring application" requirement) has the new interface.

Here are a few final impressions about the new interface:

Help Is Out Of The Way

One change I do not welcome is the way the application help is now organized. The help box that was in the upper-right-hand corner of Office 2003 apps is gone. Instead, there is an unassuming question mark (shown here at actual size) in that corner that you can click on to get help either online or off -- which means several more clicks before you get to an answer. In addition, Microsoft's Task Pane (a sidebar in current versions that offers help or lists of features) is missing. The Task Pane was, as far as I was concerned, a great way to get help on complex operations -- it pushed the main window over, but kept it visible, so you could follow Help directions on a feature without having to constantly switch windows.

Review: 2007 Office Beta 2

•  Introduction

•  Packages And Pricing

•  Inspecting The Interface

•  More Interface Fun

•  Open XML And Conclusions

•  Image Gallery

On the other hand, Microsoft has made at least one change that will gladden the hearts of those like me who dislike taking their fingers off the keyboard to do something as time-consuming as reach for a mouse. In the last version, there was no easy way to use the keyboard for features that you didn't already know the codes for. Microsoft has added prompts to the interface -- hit the Alt key, and small boxes with numbers and letters appear next to or on top of any useable feature in the Ribbon. So, for example, I hit Alt and was able to add a new comment to my document by hitting R (for Review) and C (for New Comment). It's a nice way to add reminders, and quite honestly, is a faster way of learning keyboard commands than going through the menus.

There is one aspect of the new interface that experienced users may not be able to accept: the inability to remove or change the position of the icons on the Ribbon. Microsoft has provided a Quick Access Toolbar that lives either above or directly below the Ribbon, to which users can add their favorite features. However, users who like to tweak their own interfaces might get testy over the lack of flexibility in this area.

And the placement of the various features is not always instinctive. For example, I found the new interface fairly useless when I tried to figure out how to get rid of smart quotes in Word. And when I went looking for the Options menu and went to the large Office Button on the upper-left corner (which takes the place of the File menu header), I couldn't find the expected Options choice. It turned out that, instead of being among the list of commands (such as Open, Save, Send, etc.), it was nearly hidden within the lower margin of the drop-down window.

4 of 5
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